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Leaders need to emerge if Wolves want to turn around disjointed season

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Now that we are beyond “the beginning of the NBA season,” the Minnesota Timberwolves organization and fan base are grappling with the malaise that comes with the dashing of high expectations.

For long-suffering fans, who bear their scars the way lifelong boy scouts flaunt their merit badges, the 2022-23 season opened new portals of pain. Over the 34-year history of the franchise, the Wolves had never laid down a marker toward chasing a championship as firmly as that July day when new president of basketball operations Tim Connelly mortgaged a massive chunk of the team’s future flexibility to secure the services of center Rudy Gobert for the next four years. Then Connelly doubled down by signing Karl-Anthony Towns to a “super-max” contract extension that goes a year beyond Gobert’s planned tenure, while third-year players Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels await inevitable extensions on their current rookie deals.

Forget ink on paper. Connelly’s blueprint was etched by laser into steel. By designed necessity, a quartet of players – Gobert, KAT, Ant and McDaniels – will comprise the core of this ball club for at least the next four years, which by the dynamic standards of the NBA’s typical roster churn is an eternity or two.

By locking down his top-of-the-line core personnel, Connelly raised the bar of expected achievement to a level only approached by the career prime of Kevin Garnett. Over the next four years, the Wolves are supposed to host playoff series and be in the conversation among contenders for a championship.

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They are – were – supposed to be great, right away. Instead, they have not been terrible, merely mediocre. This creates a malaise foreign to the fan base, a mutant strain of woe. There is a sharper taste to the cynicism – tart and tangy until the numbness sets in. It almost makes one yearn for the bad old days, when an 11-12 won-lost record and reachable distance from the bottom rung on the playoff ladder was cause for hope and encouragement.

To use the hallowed analogy from Peanuts, this time around, Lucy didn’t move the football at the last second. She left it in place, so that when Charlie Brown followed through on his leg kick, everyone could discover that the ball was filled with cement.

The constant yo-yo

The malaise is pervasive enough that when KAT, arguably the Wolves best player, suffered a calf strain a week ago Monday that is expected to sideline him for at least 4-6 weeks, the team could legitimately regard it as a possible pivot point out of the doldrums.

“It’s a little setback, but it gives us an opportunity to see what it looks like without him,” said point guard D’Angelo Russell after practice on Monday. “Simple as that, take advantage of that opportunity.”

DLo had cause to see the glass half-full, correctly pointing out that with only one “big man” on the floor, the defense had more kindred personnel to “activate our scramble, like we did last year.” Meanwhile, the absence of KAT on offense generates more reliance on the play-package options that evolve out the basic pick-and-roll, which is most potent when DLo and Gobert are the initiators.

Unfortunately, DLo was speaking after the Wolves had already played two games without KAT, displaying the same maddening inconsistency that has been their signature regardless of who is on the court this season. In the first game they ground down a Grizzlies team whose trademark grit disintegrated into unsuccessful intimidation tactics and the loss of their top defender and top scorer, respectively, for sniping at the refs. In the second game, the Wolves were the hot-headed chumps, driven to distraction by poor officiating as just one means of allowing a less-talented but more disciplined and cohesive Oklahoma City Thunder squad to waltz away with a victory.

In his pregame presser before the OKC matchup, Coach Chris Finch was asked how the team might duplicate the resiliency they demonstrated in their two best games of the season thus far, against the Grizzlies, and an earlier win over the Pacers. “Just avoiding the six minute of horrible basketball we string together, with turnovers and compound mistakes,” was his sardonic answer.

The Wolves proceeded to turn their coach into a prophet with exactly that type of boneheaded breakdown, this time resulting in an 18-3 Thunder run over merely four minutes of the fourth quarter. Five turnovers and four fouls (OKC had none of each) gift-wrapped the game, causing the Wolves to again dip below the .500 mark in the third calendar month of the 2022-23 season.

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Turnovers, poor defense … pick your poison

After the OKC game and after practice two days later, Finch ticked off a familiar list of foibles.

“We need to do the little things better, like take care of the ball and make the next rotations on defense. I mean, that’s what cost us the game,” Finch fumed during his postgame remarks. Explaining the turnovers, he added, “We were a beat late on a lot of plays. They were very heavy (defending) in their gaps. We over-penetrated, gave ourselves bad angles, not wanting to move the ball with enough pace so that we could punch cleaner gaps.”

The doleful details about the problems plaguing his team continued to mount in his remarks after practice on Monday.

“First and foremost, the transition defense was a total regression. And then in the half-court (the problem) was ball containment. (OKC was) a really willing ball- movement team, driving off the catch; we struggled with that.”

In transition, “We got back well enough; we just didn’t match up or stop the ball,” Finch said. Asked if that was due to a lack of strategy or lack of grit, he worked to tamp down his exasperation. “The want-to to get back was there, but there was confusion. I guess you could put it in the strategy category but there is not a lot of strategy in transition defense. You have got to get back and then you have to match up.”

Then there was the other Wolves bugaboo: Turnovers.

Asked if there was anything that can be done in practice to reduce or eliminate turnovers during the game, Finch replied, “Just quit using all the risky passes. The 50-50 passes have to be safer. Live for another pass and another play. That is a point of emphasis on everything we are doing. Like shooting drills, put the pass on target; just try to clean up everything. Turnovers come in different ways. You have poor spacing, or carelessness, illegal screens – we worked a lot on cleaning up that stuff today.”

And most every day.

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The Wolves have been gifted a rare break in the schedule, a three-game home-stand over an nine-day period lasting from Tuesday, Nov. 29 through Thursday. That allows for the luxury of ample practice time in their home environment, spaced with enough games to keep a competitive edge. KAT’s absence changes the context, of course, but unfortunately not that much. More than 20 games into the season, Finch still feels compelled to harp on the basics.

“Not making any seismic changes,” he replied, in response to a question about how this practice time will be spent. “We basically have been working on some themes in practice, and working on those every single day, is probably a better description.”

Limiting turnovers is obviously one of those themes. Only the callow, rebuilding Houston Rockets allow more points off their turnovers than the Wolves in the 30-team NBA – last season the Wolves were a respectable 12th in that category. The other blatant theme that needs to be addressed is defensively containing the man with the ball.

“The key to all defense is how well you pressure the ball, how well you can contain the ball,” Finch said, repeating one of his coaching principles. “Honestly, I think some of it is if it takes three or four defensive slides (over in rotation to effective contain the dribbler), we make two or three. We don’t make the last effort sometimes, and sometimes we leave each other on an island a little bit too much. We have gotten a little better at that of late. I just think we need to have a little more resiliency.”

Finch doesn’t say it explicitly, but in the both the general outlines and explicit descriptions of his points of emphasis for this team, it is painfully obvious that the Wolves need to work harder and play smarter. Taking care of the basketball on offense and staying in front of your man on defense are the lesson plan for Hoops 101.

Time for leaders to lead

As the Wolves continue to loll in this malaise of mediocrity, the areas where this team is lacking from a more personal, psychological standpoint are likewise fundamental – and interrelated. They don’t have an identity. And they don’t have leadership.

The most important raw materials for a team’s identity are derived from the best or most consistent skills available on the roster, maximized through a combination of schemes and commitment. The most important task for a leader is fostering that commitment up and down the roster, so that the identity is a universal point of pride and discipline within the organization.

When the blockbuster trade for Gobert was first announced, those in favor of the deal praised Connelly for landing one of the NBA’s top defenders while retaining a talented core that included two teammates good enough to have been given maximum contracts (KAT and DLo) and two third-year players consensually deemed to be a burgeoning All Star (Ant) and a capable defensive stopper (McDaniels). Those opposed to the deal thought that Gobert and KAT were a bad fit in the modern NBA and that the Wolves had mortgaged too much of their future to retain current assets.

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In retrospect, the cost of losing three rotation players from last year’s Wolves –guards Patrick Beverley and Malik Beasley, and forward/center Jarred Vanderbilt – was underestimated. Sure, everyone knew all three had value, but the counter-argument was persuasive: To get a Gobert while retaining your core talent meant ceding other key assets.

At least for the short term, however, the Wolves ceded identity and leadership. When Finch installed an aggressive “high wall” defensive scheme that required frenzied but coordinated effort to pressure the ball and generate turnovers, PatBev and Vando provided the heart and the hamstrings that made it sing. It didn’t hurt that the scheme boosted the virtues and obscured the vices of Ant, KAT, and DLo on defense. But PatBev and Vando spurred the contagion that vaulted the Wolves into the NBA’s top three teams in both blocks and steals while creating the most turnovers and most points off turnovers in the league. Within the first month of the 2021-22 season, KAT was already referring to this marauding defensive style as “Timberwolves basketball.” That’s an identity.

On offense the Wolves were also distinctively freewheeling. They scored the most points playing at the fastest pace in the NBA, launching the most three-pointers as a talisman of their run-and-run style. This would not have been practical without their sharpshooting sixth man, Beasley, who broke the franchise record for most treys attempted and made. With his team-high 24.6 points per game average and 41% accuracy from deep, KAT remained the alpha figure of the Wolves offensive identity. But Beasley’s ability to generate instant offense off bench at a torrid rate of 11.6 treys attempted per 36 minutes, was the crucial complement for a roster that otherwise didn’t score from distance all that effectively.

The 2022-23 Timberwolves have tumbled from first to eighth in creating turnovers and first to 13th in scoring points off those turnovers. They have dropped from first to 18th in three-point attempts and 12th to 28th in three-point accuracy. They have some impressive rankings, relative to the rest of the NBA – they are second in two-point shot accuracy, fifth in fast-break points and sixth in points scored in the paint – but there is no blend of flair, expertise and internal belief that coalesces into a proud, bona fide identity.

Ant’s time to step up

On a roster suffused with talent, it is remarkable that an even larger void exists in terms of leadership.

“Everything about winning requires leadership, something that we have not been great at,” Finch conceded. “We are trying to find a voice, trying to find a personality as a team. That is something we have to keep working on, keep cultivating. That’s my job.”

When times are tough, Finch seems sorely tempted to anoint Ant as team leader, but that amount of influence on the process is actually beyond his job description and capabilities. “It’s tough,” he acknowledges. “Guys might have it in them to be a leader but they might not be ready to bring it out. You try to coax it out of them.” At the same time, he understands that those efforts can be fruitless, that the process can be boiled down to a tautology. “Leadership is about one thing: Getting people to follow you.”

Was it serendipity of something more meaningful that in the first game after KAT’s calf injury, Ant played perhaps his most mature, well-rounded games in a Wolves uniform in the win over Memphis? He both set the tone and then cinched the outcome, with 11 points in the first quarter and 17 in the fourth quarter. In between, he enabled, logging an assist, two steals and a block during a 16-2 third-quarter run that broke the game open.

In crunch-time, when Grizzlies bad boy Dillon Brooks hit him in the mouth and trash-talked him after the whistle, Ant temporarily lost his cool, did a bit of jawing, then returned to dominance as a frustrated Brooks was eventually ejected for his second technical.

After the game, Finch couldn’t help himself. “Ant’s voice is growing more, which is exactly what we want and need right now. He’s learning how to do that. It’s something we are really encouraging.”

Remember Finch’s succinct dictum – the path of leadership is generating followers. In that same postgame, he added, “Ant has something all great leaders need; he has a likeability factor, connectivity. Teammates really like him because they believe he has everyone’s best interests at heart.”

But what Ant doesn’t have is a reliable level of high performance. He is 21 years old in his head and his heart as well as his birth certificate. His charismatic intangibles stem from his eye-popping talent and athleticism and the infectious joy he exudes in performance. But he is not an efficient scorer – his true shooting percentage has always been below league-average – and his defensive focus and effectiveness are woefully inconsistent.

This is probably as it should be. This is Ant’s third season of shadow-boxing with accountability. He is notoriously terrible in the first halves of afternoon games, and then guilelessly asks how many more afternoon games there are in the season, promising to be better. He correctly notes that he has a habit of following up a good game with a bad game, and vows to improve. By all accounts, he is highly coachable, listens carefully, understands what is being asked of him, and tries to do it. But consistency of achievement is still a work in progress.

It is hard to imagine anybody more popular in the Wolves locker room. But to load up his plate with a full helping of leadership feels like a foolish risk. Ant already has “followers,” but there are no strings attached. His words and sentiments are not from authority, but from a joyous baller who wants to win, a fine line that deserves to be respected until if and when his leadership becomes a foregone conclusion.

Meanwhile, the roster will soldier on with patchwork leadership. Rudy Gobert is the adult of eminence in the locker room, which is precisely why he is keeping his powder dry right now. Gobert understands that the 2022-23 Wolves are not as capable as the 2021-22 Wolves thus far, and that there are a lot of key holdovers who remember the good times from the previous calendar. He’ll be a patient explainer, especially on defense, encourage progress, and occasionally be prone to moments of frustration. But this is not the time to try and pull rank.

Two veterans, Taurean Prince and Austin Rivers, are smart and outspoken. Rivers especially has taken enough locker-room temperatures as the son of a NBA coach and a journeyman of many NBA teams of varying competence to know when he’ll be heard. But he doesn’t currently have the on-court gravitas to the leader. Prince currently has better credentials on the court but not as many in the locker room. Both are valuable communicators, and chemistry enhancers – solid lieutenants.

KAT and DLo have their quirks as well as their means of influence, but DLo is on an expiring contract and KAT cares too much what people think of him.

So, no definitive leader at the current time. But that’s okay, for now. For better and for worse, the 2022-23 Timberwolves will, by default, be given plenty of time to figure it out.

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